The City of Sanford’s Racist Past

The dark story behind the city where Trayvon Martin died.

Mathew Brady / Library of Congress

The Florida town where Trayvon Martin met his death bears the name of its founder, a failed orange grower turned lobbyist who, in the 19th century, abetted a Belgian king’s bloody colonial adventure in the Congo that left millions of Africans dead.

Henry Sanford was also an ardent proponent of sending black Americans to Africa.

“The ground to draw the gathering electricity from the black cloud spreading over the southern states,” he termed it.

The Congo, Sanford said, would encourage “the enterprise and ambition of our colored people in more congenial fields than politics.”

Despite such sentiments, the city still proudly bears his name. Sanford, the city, honors Sanford, the man, by maintaining a library and museum in his memory, commemorating a racist who came to Florida as the sole heir of a hugely successful brass-tacks manufacturer in Connecticut.

Henry Sanford’s own business efforts were a series of failures that included the orange groves he planted in a 23-square-mile tract on the shore of Lake Monroe, purchased in 1870 for 30 cents an acre. He established the town of Sanford there with the hope that it would become “the Gate City of South Florida.”

But Sanford proved to be no better an orange grower in Florida than he had been a cotton grower in South Carolina, a sugar grower in Louisiana, a shipbuilder in Maine, a mine investor in Nevada, a railroad speculator in Minnesota, or a real-estate developer in the Midwest.

Sanford found his true calling as an emissary, first as a diplomat in Belgium during the American Civil War, when he became fast friends with King Leopold II.

After the war, he found no bounty in oranges. His wife, Gertrude, pronounced Florida a “vampire” that sucked away their wealth and vigor. And so Sanford went to Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for King Leopold II.

As recounted in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, Sanford mounted what he called a “gastronomic campaign,” supplementing discreet payoffs with lavish feasts as he convinced Congress to officially recognize Leopold II’s claim of the Congo as a colony. Sanford assured the legislators that the king’s primary aim was to “humanize” the people there.

Sanford’s primary ally was Sen. John Tyler Morgan, who had been a general in the Confederate Army and who headed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Morgan issued a report on Leopold II and the Congo that was drafted with considerable input from Sanford.

Congress voted as Sanford urged. And Leopold’s minions proceeded to enslave, murder, and burn in a truly barbarous pursuit of rubber wealth, laying waste to thousands of square miles. Untold numbers of women and children starved as they were put in chains and held hostage as the men sought rubber in the forests. Leopold II’s troops were made to conserve ammunition by providing a severed right hand for every bullet expended. One district commissioner was said to have received 1,308 severed hands at one time. The total human cost from murder, famine, and disease was as many as 10 million lives.

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Sanford and Morgan were also allied in a belief that black Americans should be sent to Africa. Morgan declared that Africa “was prepared for the Negro as certainly as the Garden of Eden was prepared for Adam and Eve.”

But after the atrocities in the Congo came to light, Morgan worried that the mass deaths would make it more difficult to convince black Americans to go. He proposed legislation that would provide federal subsidies to encourage them to emigrate.

The senator’s hometown is not called Morgan. Its name is Selma—a name that evokes memories of the civil-rights struggle.

Sanford’s hometown stands doubly shamed—by its very name and by a killing that rocked this country and made those Selma, Ala., days seem not so distant.

Future walking tours sponsored by the Sanford Historical Society should be sure to include the route a 17-year-old black teenager took after he bought Skittles and iced tea at a convenience store.

Here, the guide could say, is where Trayvon told his girlfriend over his cellphone that he was being followed.

And here is where he was when his girlfriend urged him to run and he said he would instead “walk fast.”

And here is the patch of sidewalk where he was shot and killed by a neighborhood-watch zealot named George Zimmerman who afterward said he felt threatened.

Sanford may not change its name or even its historical walking tours. But to the rest of America, Sanford is now associated with another name: Trayvon Martin, the black teenager whose killing reminds us how far we have yet to go.